How Yoga Supports Recovery

My 23-year relationship with yoga began the year I got sober for the final time in June of 1991. Yoga is a part of the reason that I was able to realize all that the Twelve Steps have to offer, and I believe strongly that yoga is indispensable in the treatment of addiction. Here are some ideas why.

Addiction is dis-ease. Yoga brings ease.

Addiction is a state of mind and body in which we feel distant from ease. Ask anyone who struggles with addiction if they feel “at ease” when they are not using their drug or addictive behavior of choice and they will tell you no. It is precisely this lack of ease that compels a person to reach for something to try to feel better or to move them closer to ease. 

It makes sense that any practice that can bring ease to the body-mind system, which is productive rather than destructive, will be a key ingredient on the path of recovery from addiction. The physical practice of yoga, along with breath practices, serves to detoxify the body and calm the mind. Yoga improves circulation and lung capacity, stretches and strengthens muscles, helps to work out the organs and improves digestion, and regulates the nervous and endocrine systems. You will simply be more comfortable in your mind and body if you practice yoga. For this reason, I consider yoga to be a central and necessary component of recovery from addiction. 

Addiction is fueled by a sense of lack. Yoga counters this.

We know that people who struggle with addiction carry a deep sense of lack. Something seems to be missing. An itch needs to be scratched. With acute addiction, one’s entire organism is caught up in a pursuit of fulfilling needs that can never be met. This is true for active addicts as much as it is true for people in recovery until they have been able to work out the complex roots of trauma that drive their behavior.

In the body’s hierarchy of needs, breath is number one. We can live without food for weeks. We can live without water for days. But without breath (in yoga we use the term prana, or life force) for even three minutes, we get into real trouble. The way that we breathe directly affects our emotional state and vice versa. When we feel anxious, worried, angry, or stressed, our breath becomes shallow. Interestingly, shallow breathing sends a signal to our nervous system that our core need is not being met. This reinforces a sense of lack, which creates tension and stress. For addicts, in particular this is dangerous because it keeps us stuck in a somatic pattern that reinforces the illusion that we are somehow incomplete. It keeps us stuck in the force field of addiction, if you will.

Many people do not breathe well, meaning they have not developed the capacity to breathe deeply, to work their diaphragm and lungs. They also have not developed their core musculature, which is necessary for proper posture, to support the heart, and to allow the rib cage to expand and contract when breathing deeply.

Yoga emphasizes a focus on breathing. Through dedicated and sometimes strenuous practice, we develop a relationship with our breath. We come to understand that, by focusing on and controlling our breath, we can change how we think and feel. We can use the breath as a vehicle for entering states of meditation and also as a means of changing our emotional state and managing stress.

By learning to do simple long deep breathing, which is accessible by almost anyone, we send a different message to our nervous system, namely that all is well and our core need is being met. This allows our body-mind system to relax and moves us toward healing, recovery and wholeness. Breathing well counters the sense of lack that plagues most addicts and is a precursor to a healthier life beyond addiction. I love the wonderful quote from Mary Oliver: “Are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?”

Addiction is a disease of disconnection. Yoga is union.

The word yoga means “union.” It refers to the union of mind, body, and spirit. In a typical yoga class, a teacher might say, “Press down into your feet in such a way that you feel the earth press back up.” So I bring my attention to my feet, press down, and begin to feel the rebound of energy up through my body. “Breathe more slowly and deeply.” And I bring my attention to my breath. Wherever the teacher directs my attention, I learn to connect with that area of my body. In this way, yoga practice is the practice of connecting or reconnecting with the body. In active addiction, we have lost connection with our body. As we all are aware, addiction counters even our body’s main directive to survive. System override! So, engaging in practice that directs our mind to bring us back into contact with our physical self will move us toward a sense of union and be uplifting to our spirit.

From the yogi’s perspective, all addiction comes from the misunderstanding that we are somehow separate from each other and from all of creation. The path of yoga is there simply to liberate us of this illusion.

Addiction causes fluctuations of the mind.

Yoga calms fluctuations of the mind. Anyone who has experienced addiction can relate to the idea that when caught in its grasp, one feels preyed upon by one’s own mind. Through every conceivable thought form, addiction makes itself known. Often our minds are at us even before we get out of bed in the morning. We haven’t yet opened our eyes and the vulture is already right there on the headboard. Indeed, addiction causes a powerfully negative form of mind fluctuation or disturbance.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the classic text, which describes the path of yoga, there are 296 sutras or aphorisms that illuminate an individual’s journey from suffering to liberation. In the second sutra, yoga is defined as “the calming of the fluctuations of the mind.” The rest of the document serves only to explain how this can be achieved. The path can be summed up as follows: Aspire to live a disciplined, ethical life. Bring the body into alignment and health. Learn the secrets of the breath. Meditate and be free.

The path of yoga is complementary to the path of recovery from addiction. In my experience, it decreases the likelihood of relapse and increases one’s enjoyment of life. And after all, the point is not to just survive addiction. The point is to thrive in recovery.

Find out about upcoming programs with Tommy Rosen at Kripalu.

This article is excerpted from a longer post on Tommy’s blog

Tommy Rosen, a vinyasa flow and Kundalini Yoga teacher, is a leading authority on addiction and recovery, with 30 years of experience helping people overcome addictions of every kind.

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